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9 questions with Daimler Trucks North America CEO Roger Nielsen

One final motor-home tour playing secret shopper at Freightliner dealers

Freightliner dealers in the American Southwest should be on the lookout for Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) CEO Roger Nielsen. He is taking one final motor-home tour and playing secret shopper before officially retiring April 30.

“I usually just show up and go into the parts department, and usually something’s broken. Nothing major, like lost hub nut covers,” he said. “But, hey, you can always use DEF (diesel exhaust fluid).”

Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. builds the chassis on which the luxury accommodation rides. With COVID severely reducing the use of DTNA marketing vehicles, Nielsen had plenty to choose from for his 30-day journey. He picked a Jayco Entrega. 

Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) CEO Roger Nielsen is taking a monthlong trip across the American southwest like one in this mobile home. He is visiting Freightliner dealers as a secret shopper. Nielsen retires April 30 after 35 years.
(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The tour culminates his four years leading the subsidiary of Stuttgart, Germany-based Daimler Truck AG. He is leaving before the truck unit becomes a stand-alone business later this year. That timing, he said in a FreightWaves interview, is just coincidence.

Nielsen shared his thoughts on the rise of electrification and self-driving technology — two areas he will miss seeing develop — and other reflections in a conversation, edited for space and clarity.

How long have you been thinking about retiring?

I turned 60 in January. And that was always my plan, by the time I’m 60 to retire from Daimler. And April 28 is actually my 35th anniversary with the company. It was two round numbers: 60 years old, 35 years of service, I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. And it’s time to take a little bit of a halftime, I would call it.

Do you have one thing or a range of things to pursue in retirement?

I still have a passion for what’s going on in battery electric. I’ve got a passion about what’s going on in autonomous. There’s a lot of transformations [that] trucking companies have to go through in the next 10 years to get themselves ready for new technologies. I’ve got a passion for that. So I can’t walk away. I’ll do something.

These technologies are just getting started. Does that leave you frustrated?

It never goes fast enough, does it? We’ve been in the diesel engine business at Daimler for 125 years. And we’re still making changes. It’s never going to stand still. So there’s not a good time to step out of it. We’re going to get to the point where battery-electric vehicles and diesel-powered vehicles will be somewhat at cost equity from the terms of total ownership. Customers will no longer have to [choose]: “Do I want to spend the extra for an electric vehicle?”

Dana Inc. said recently that its order book in coming years is split evenly between electric and conventional powertrains.

I don’t believe everybody’s orders because orders in this business are fleeting. A lot of companies, especially startups, need to show a strong backlog in order to get investors. And they need investors’ money to continue growing or developing their product because their revenue is near zero or at zero. We need the customer’s trust, which comes in a different way. And we don’t need the orders to justify our next development.

PACCAR Inc. puts electric truck demand at a few hundred trucks a year for the next few years. Where do you see it?

We’re planning for 30% of medium-duty vehicles to be battery electric by 2030, Class 8 probably about half of that because we will not yet have a viable solution for that long-haul irregular route guy. That’s where fuel cells come in.

You said two years ago that you thought fuel cells were many years away.

It’s not ready for prime time. I actually believe that a lot has changed in the last couple of years. The big thing now is the infrastructure guys are interested. [They] have been waiting for liquid hydrogen, gaseous hydrogen, to be used in vehicles for 25 years. Car guys have been telling them, “Yeah, fuel cells [are] just on the horizon.” And they’ve been burned. And now we’re seeing them getting excited again.

So the fuel cell does play a role sooner rather than later?

The irregular route long-haul trucker is going to need fuel cells to get [a driving] range  where they don’t have to choose between diesel or battery electric. So we believe fuel cells will fill a place. There’s a lot of work to be done yet, costwise, scaling up. But I’ve seen the plans for scaling up hydrogen fuel cells. And I tell you, it will be a cost parity with diesel before you know it. We said this decade. But I think it will be faster.

How difficult is balancing current products focused on human drivers with self-driving trucks that could replace them?

I wish the technologies were on the same evolutionary curve. Active driver assistance systems are going to be a completely different set of technologies than an autonomous driving truck. It isn’t like we just add a few things to it and we get Level 4. This is where the partnerships, with our equity ownership in Torc Robotics and the alliance we have with Waymo,  gives us a chance to partner with people who have the time, the energy, and the focus to put into virtual driving systems that we can’t because we’re keeping our current customer base running. 

You’ve also fostered a lot of partnerships with electric truck test fleets.

This co-creation process on the battery electric has brought us to the same side of the table as our customers when facing down all the other structural problems — infrastructure, for example; trying to get the right amount of power located at the right depot at the right time; the construction costs with all those. It’s allowed us to work together on those problems for a common solution versus just dumping a truck in their lap and saying, “Hey, good luck.” 

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Alan Adler

Alan Adler is a Detroit-based award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press, the Detroit Free Press and most recently as Detroit Bureau Chief for Trucks.com. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.